Pramit Mohapatra
Wednesday January 9th, 2008

Last year featured a number of intriguing storylines in American MMA. The UFC established itself as the number one MMA brand in this country, if not most of the world, while PRIDE was dismantled. Steroids became a major topic as high-profile fighters failed drug tests. And, for the first time in this country, a MMA fighter succumbed to injuries suffered at a sanctioned event. So, what are some potential storylines in 2008? Here are five things to look for as we begin the new year.

Expansion can be thought of on two fronts: domestic and international. Domestically, expansion means growing the number of states that sanction MMA. The approved list grew by 10 in 2007 to 31 (which includes the District of Columbia). Moreover, the Pennsylvania and North Carolina legislatures have approved MMA, but sanctioning has not yet taken effect. That still leaves 17 states that have not approved sanctioning.

So, which ones will join the growing majority in 2008? UFC President Dana White has repeatedly said he is targeting New York, reiterating that goal at the post-UFC 79 press conference.

Expansion of American MMA has already begun internationally. The UFC held two events in England and one in Northern Ireland in 2007. White said the UFC also has its sights set on shows in Canada, Germany and Mexico. He has readily admitted that the UFC's 2007 international shows came at a cost but he seems committed to making the UFC a global brand and has shown a willingness to take short-term lumps for long-term rewards.

The UFC has been a mainstay on SpikeTV (basic cable) for years. WEC (owned by Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC) settled in comfortably with the Versus network, another basic cable channel, in 2007. EliteXC has a partnership with premium cable channel Showtime. And, the IFL enjoyed network TV exposure on MyNetworkTV with a weekly show as well as the live event coverage in November 2007. ESPN has even made MMA highlights and interviews a regular part of its TV programming.

Still, none of the promotions has been able to break through to the major networks (ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC) for live coverage. Rumors have persisted recently that the writers' strike would pave the way for a deal between the UFC and CBS or NBC to televise one of the UFC's upcoming pay-per-view cards. But, no official announcement has been made. Will 2008 be the year the sport breaks through and gains consistent network TV coverage?

Slowly but surely corporate America has also taken notice of the sport. At UFC 79, traditional sponsors such as Xyience were replaced in the Octagon by blue chip sponsors such as Harley-Davidson and Lumber Liquidators.

Will more blue chip sponsors follow suit? White said all he has to do to convince corporate executives of the appeal of the sport is to bring them to a UFC event. With the sport growing in popularity and already strong in the coveted male 18-34 demographic and knocking on the door of mainstream TV coverage, maybe the real question should be, can such sponsors afford to not get in the game? This could be a telling year on that front. Along with network TV coverage, increasing sponsorship dollars may help determine whether MMA's popularity has already peaked or whether the sport is still growing.

While the UFC has clearly established itself as the number one promotion in America and has secured a majority of the world's top talent, that hasn't stopped a number of other promotions from popping up in a bid to claim a slice of the pie. The UFC's main competitors would appear to be very young domestic promotions.

None of these promotions can match the brand recognition, infrastructure, or talent base that the UFC enjoys. But, there could be enough scraps for number two to be financially viable. WEC, as the UFC's sibling promotion, enjoys the benefit of Zuffa's industry expertise, and its production level may be the best of the rest. While it is highly unlikely that Zuffa would ever allow WEC to become the jewel of its crown, it certainly could act as a very robust number two.

Non-Zuffa competitors include EliteXC (owned by ProElite, Inc.), the IFL, and HDNet Fights -- EliteXC has the advantage of its partnership with Showtime Networks. In addition, EliteXC President Gary Shaw has stayed true to his word of partnering with other promotions to create the best fights possible and has also built up EliteXC's roster of talent in just a year.

The IFL is entering its third year and has enjoyed some mainstream network TV exposure. However, one of the IFL's main negatives is that the most recognizable figures in the league are its coaches.

Maybe the most intriguing competitor to the UFC is HDNet Fights. White himself mentioned owner Mark Cuban by name at the UFC 79 press conference when asked about potential competitors. That may very well have been a nod to the business and sports savvy of the billionaire, who owns the NBA's Dallas Mavericks.

Cuban has a distinct advantage because he can produce and distribute MMA content through his own dish network, HDNet. HDNet Fights has already held two events in Dallas and MMA content is clearly a big part of HDNet's future programming.

As yesterday's stars -- such as Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell -- grow older and begin to slowly fade into the background or pursue other interests, opportunities exist for new stars to emerge. Three potential suitors for the title "The Next Big Star" are (with all due respect to Fedor Emelianenko and Urijah Faber, it's difficult to imagine that the next MMA star in this country won't come from the UFC) Forrest Griffin, Quinton Jackson and Georges St. Pierre.

Griffin has been popular since his appearance on The Ultimate Fighter One. But, his victory over Mauricio Rua catapulted him to the top of the UFC light heavyweight food chain. This year Griffin's exposure will only grow beginning with his role as a coach on TUF 7, followed by his title fight against Jackson.

Griffin's personality has always shined and will undoubtedly be showcased on TUF. In the title fight he will have the opportunity to perform on the grandest stage in the deepest division in the sport's signature weight class. How could Griffin not become the sport's next big star?

One word: Rampage. It just so happens that for Griffin to claim the fictional title as well as the real one, he will have to go through a man who has just as big a personality (also on display when Jackson coaches the opposing team in TUF 7) and who already holds the UFC's light heavyweight title. This may be the year when the rest of America learns what MMA fans already know about Jackson -- he can dish out one-liners as well as beatdowns.

If the two light heavyweights fail in their quest to become the next big thing, welterweight St. Pierre could easily fill the void. The handsome and charming Canadian is thoughtful in interviews and has a French accent to boot.

He's also young (he turns 27 this year) and what's scary is that even with all his skills, he appears intent on growing as a fighter as he continues his journey to re-claim the undisputed UFC welterweight title. "GSP", as he is commonly known by his adoring fans, has many headlining fights ahead of him. He's already a star but soon enough he could become the star in MMA.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.